WTO, UN Environment Eye New Avenues for Collaboration

1 February 2018

The heads of the World Trade Organization and UN Environment said late last week that they would be kicking off a formal new dialogue between their institutions, aimed at creating greater synergies between work on their respective policy areas, as well as connecting the various stakeholders which engage in those subjects. 

WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo and UN Environment Executive Director Erik Solheim confirmed that this process would include holding a “high-level event” in Geneva, Switzerland, this year. The WTO has its headquarters in Geneva, and while UN Environment is headquartered in Nairobi, it also has a large office in the Swiss city. 

According to a joint press release from the two agencies, the dialogue would purport to foster new ideas regarding trade and environment which can help support the implementation of Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were endorsed by world governments at the United Nations in late 2015. (See Bridges Weekly, 1 October 2015

On the WTO side, Azevêdo said that the new scheme reflects the “very same notion that inspired the creation of the WTO more than 20 years ago: that trade can serve as a powerful tool to improve human well-being in all its dimensions – economic, social, and environmental.”

Both organisations have worked together regularly in the past, and have some overlapping areas of focus. The news comes two years after UN Environment announced on the sidelines of the WTO’s 10th Ministerial Conference in Nairobi its Environment and Trade Hub

The initiative, which was launched at the 2015 Trade and Sustainable Development Symposium held in parallel with the WTO ministerial, includes capacity-building at national, regional, and international levels to support the crafting of environmentally-sound trade policy measures and use trade towards meeting environmental objectives, among other areas of work. (Editor’s note: the Trade and Sustainable Development Symposium in Nairobi was held by ICTSD, the publisher of Bridges, in cooperation with various other partners.) 

Among its more recent high-profile work relating to trade, UN Environment held the third session of its United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) in Nairobi in December 2017, aimed at mobilising member states to ramp up their efforts at combatting pollution by 2019.  The final ministerial declaration, entitled “Towards a Pollution-Free Planet,” reaffirmed countries’ commitment to “foster inclusive and sustainable economic productivity, innovation, job creation, and environmentally sound technologies.” 

It proposed to do so by encouraging sustainable lifestyles, consumption, and production patterns. The statement also referred to the role of trade in addressing pollution and meeting sustainability objectives, among other tools such as science and education. 

Meanwhile, the WTO has an existing body known as the Committee on Trade and Environment (CTE), which was launched following a 1994 “Decision on Trade and Environment.” The CTE’s work involves examining the interlinkages between the two policy areas, such as the field of biodiversity, along with suggesting possible changes in the trade arena that could support sustainability objectives. 

UN Environment is an official observer to the CTE, and participates in committee meetings and related seminars, including by providing updates on the UN body’s work in relation to international trade policy. 

WTO members have also been negotiating specific rules under the CTE’s “special session,” as part of the larger Doha Development Agenda (DDA) launched over 16 years ago. Among the topics that members have considered in this session are the relationship between the global trade body’s rules and “multilateral environmental agreements” (MEAs) reached elsewhere, along with tackling trade barriers in environmental goods and services. 

On environmental goods, a group of 18 WTO members representing nearly 50 countries have been negotiating tariff cuts to a list of environmental goods, though those talks have been on hold since late 2016. The proposed accord would be known as the Environmental Goods Agreement (EGA), and participants in the initiative regularly report on negotiating progress at the CTE’s meetings. 

ICTSD reporting.

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